Recently, Nesta launched a report exploring how cities and regions collaborate internationally on innovation. If done effectively, international collaborations offer the opportunity to hit multiple policy priorities: levelling up regions, boosting investment in R&D towards 2.4 percent of GDP, and strengthening overseas relationships post-Brexit.
Cities and regions have a long history of forging overseas relationships directly with international partners. So-called ‘municipal internationalism’ thrived in the nineteenth century, culminating in the formation of the International Union of Local Authorities in 1913. Today, ambitious city regions across Europe have overseas offices (often in Brussels) and a complex web of relationships around the world. As Shane Ewen and Michael Hebbert put it, ‘the spirit of the Hanseatic League is alive and well in Europe’s town halls’.
There has been renewed interest in the topic in recent years. ‘Decentralised Development Cooperation’ is promoted by the likes of the OECD as means to help cities and regions achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. City diplomacy is an established academic field. I even published some musings of my own on the topic back in 2016.
The Nesta report is, however, valuable for considering how international collaborations can boost policy innovation (for leaders and governments), systems innovation (to address longer-term systemic issues of institutional capacity) and partnerships innovation (between government and business, universities, and other institutions) at the local level. The latter, in particular, is significant. Michele Acuto has observed that the average distance between a city hall and the closest major university is just under four kilometres in four of the major city networks. Strong, strategic partnerships at local level can only help strengthen international ones.
One effect of COVID-19 will be a greater role for universities and other civic bodies in regional collaborations. According to the Nesta report, ‘these are repeatedly viewed as critical and under-tapped intermediaries in peer-to-peer collaboration, because they have additional and more durable capacity as well as the ability to pedagogically transmit key principles, codify lessons and develop processes for distributed on-the-ground implementation’. Initiatives such as the EUniverCities network, in which medium-sized cities and their universities work together, offer a glimpse at what this may look like as a formalised structure.
For Yorkshire, the relationships that exist in the region between universities and LEPs, Combined Authorities, metro mayors, and local authorities provide a solid base to build upon. Both local government and the region’s universities have a wide set of relationships with counterparts around the world. The extent of city twinning in the region (which exploded in popularity after world war two) provide an insight into the range of partners: Hull is twinned with several cities, including Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Niigata, Japan. York and Bradford both have twins in France and Germany. Sheffield’s twins include Chengdu in China, Kawasaki, Japan and Pittsburgh, United States. Leeds is twinned with several cities including Hangzhou in China, Dortmund, Germany, and Durban, South Africa.
The multiple policy priorities of levelling up, boosting investment in R&D, and strengthening overseas relationships – ambitious even before COVID-19 struck – mean we need to bring universities into the centre of efforts to collaborate internationally on innovation. This would provide a timely boost to the concept of ‘Global Britain’.